Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
In the meantime, however, they were children, and as children, they attended school, as was required by law in the Free States. The new philosophy in education was that children would grow into healthier, better citizens and adults if they were exposed not
just to the necessities of life (math, reading, writing) but to art and music and sport as well. And so, the previous summer, when his grandfather asked him if he might want to assist in the search for an art teacher for the institution, David had surprised even himself by volunteering for the responsibility—for had he not studied art for many years? Had he not been looking for something, some useful task, with which to define his days?
He taught his class every Wednesday, toward the end of the afternoon, just before the children had their supper, and initially, he had often wondered whether their fidgeting and tittering was at him or in anticipation of their meal—he had even considered asking the matron if he might teach his class earlier in the day, but she was fearsome to adults (though, curiously, beloved by her charges), and although she would have had to accede to his request, he was too intimidated to do so. He had always been wary of children, their unflinching, unbroken gazes that suggested they could see him in a way that adults no longer bothered to or could, but over time, he had grown first accustomed to and then fond of them, and as the months passed, they too grew steadier and calmer in his quiet presence, toiling away with their sticks of charcoal over their pads of paper, trying as best they could to reproduce the blue-and-white chinoiserie bowl filled with quince he had placed atop a stool at the front of the room.
He heard the music that day before he even opened the door—something familiar, a popular song, a song that he did not think was right for children to listen to—and he reached for the doorknob and turned it sharply, but before he could express either consternation or anger, he was struck at once by a number of sights and sounds that left him mute and motionless.
There, at the front of the room, was the decrepit, long-neglected piano that had been relegated to a corner of the classroom, its wood so buckled that, he had assumed, the instrument had been rendered hopelessly out of tune. But now it had been repaired, and cleaned, and positioned in the center of the room as if it were a grand, fine thing, and sitting at it was a young man, perhaps a few years younger than he, with dark hair slicked back as if it were evening and he were
at a party, and a handsome, lively, beautiful face, one that complemented his handsome voice, with which he was singing:
Why are you single, why live alone? / Have you no babies, have you no home?
The man’s head was tipped back on his neck, which was long but supple and strong, like a snake, and as he sang, David watched a muscle move in his throat, a pearl traveling upward and then sliding down:
“Bright lights were flashing in the grand ballroom,
Softly the music playing sweet tunes.
There came my sweetheart, my love, my own,
I wish some water, leave me alone!
When I returned, dear, there stood a man,
Kissing my sweetheart as lovers can…”
It was the kind of song you heard at low places, at music halls and minstrel shows, and thus highly inappropriate to sing to children, especially children like these, who given their circumstances would be naturally inclined toward such sentimental entertainments. And yet David found himself unable to speak, as mesmerized by the man, by his sweet, low voice, as the children were. He had heard this song performed only as a waltz, syrupy and plaintive, but the man had changed it into something jolly and brisk, so that the mawkishness of its story—a young girl asking her ancient bachelor uncle to explain why he had never fallen in love, never coupled and had a family—was reborn into something winking and bright. It was a song David hated in part because he felt that it might be a tune he would someday be able to sing from experience, that in it was his inevitable fate, but in this version, the man in the song sounded jaunty and careless, as if by never marrying he had been not deprived but delivered from a dismal future.
“After the ball is over, after the break of morn,
After the dancers’ leaving, after the stars are gone,
Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all—
Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball.”
The young man finished with a flourish, and stood and bowed to the assembled twenty or so children, who had been listening raptly and now broke into cheers and applause, and David stood straighter and cleared his throat.
At this, the man looked at him and smiled, such a broad, brilliant smile that David was once again flustered. “Children,” he said, “I believe I’ve made you late for your next lesson. Now, don’t groan, it’s very rude”—David flushed—“just go and get your drawing pads and I shall see you next week.” He began, still smiling, to make his way over to David, still standing at the door.
“I say, that’s a very strange song to play for children,” he began, trying his best to sound severe, but the man laughed, unoffended, as if David had been only teasing him. “I suppose it is,” he answered, good-naturedly, and then, before David could ask, “I am being very rude; not only have I made you late for your class, or, rather, your class late for you—
were on time!—but I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Edward Bishop—I am the new music teacher here at this fine establishment.”
“I see,” he said, uncertain how the conversation had slipped from his control so quickly. “Well, I must say that I was quite surprised to hear—”
“And I know who
are,” the young man interrupted him, but so charmingly, so warmly, that David once again found himself disarmed. “You’re Mister David Bingham, of the New York Binghams. I suppose I don’t need to say ‘New York,’ do I? Though surely there’s another set of Binghams somewhere in the Free States, don’t you think? The Chatham Binghams, for example; or the Portsmouth Binghams. I wonder how they must feel, these lesser Binghams, knowing that their name will always only mean one family, and they not a part of it, and therefore condemned to perpetually disappoint when people ask, ‘Oh, of
Binghams?’ and they having to apologetically say, ‘Oh, I’m afraid not; we’re of the Utica Binghams,’ and watching their inquisitor’s face fall.”
He was made quite speechless at this delivery, which had unfurled with great gaiety and speed, so that all he could muster, stiffly, was “I had never thought of it like that,” which made the young man
laugh again, but quietly, as if he were laughing not at David but at something clever he had said, and the two had shared a confidence.
And then he placed his hand on David’s arm, and said, still merrily, “Well, Mister David Bingham, it was very nice indeed to meet you, and I apologize once again for disrupting the schedule.”
After the door closed behind him, something essential seemed to leach from the room; the children, who had been alert and attentive, suddenly became wan and defeated, and even David could feel himself slumping, as if his own body were no longer able to participate in the farce of enthusiasm, of uprightness, that a well-modeled life demanded.
Nevertheless, he plowed onward. “Good afternoon, children,” he said, receiving a tepid “Good afternoon, Mister Bingham,” in reply as he assembled on the stool the day’s still life: a creamily glazed vase in which he arranged a few branches of holly. As usual, he took his position at the back of the room, both so he could supervise the children and so he too could sketch if he so chose. Today, though, it was as if the only object in the room he could see was the piano, which stood behind the stool with his poor arrangement and, for all its batteredness, seemed the most beautiful, most compelling object there: a beacon, something shining and pure.
He glanced over to the student on his right, a frowzy, tiny eight-year-old, and saw that she was sketching (poorly) not only the vase and the flowers but the piano as well.
“Alice, you are just to draw the still life,” he reminded her.
She looked up, all eyes in her pinched little face, her two protruding teeth resembling chips of bone. “I apologize, Mister Bingham,” she whispered, and he sighed. Why would she
want to include the piano, when he too was unable to stop himself from gazing at it, as if he too might be able to conjure its player simply by hoping, as if his ghostly form lingered still in the room? “It’s all right, Alice,” he said. “Just start again on a clean sheet.” Around him, the rest of the children were silent and sullen; he could hear them shifting in their seats. It was foolish to feel so pained, but he did—he had always thought they had enjoyed his class, enjoyed it at least almost as much as he had come to enjoy teaching them, but after witnessing
their earlier delight, he knew that even if that had once been true, it no longer was. He was a bite of an apple, but Edward Bishop was that apple baked into a pie with a shattery, lardy crust pattered with sugar, and after a taste of that, there was no going back to the other.
At dinner that night, he was morose, but Grandfather was in a cheery mood—was everyone in the world so happy?—and there was David’s favorite roasted squab for dinner, and stewed cardoons, but he ate little, and when Grandfather asked, as he did every Wednesday, how his class had been, he murmured only “Fine, Grandfather,” whereas normally he tried to make him laugh with stories of what the children had drawn, and what they had asked him, and how he had distributed the fruit or flowers from the still life among the students who had done the best work.
But Grandfather seemed not to notice his inwardness, or at least chose not to comment on it, and after dinner, as he was trudging upstairs to the drawing room, David had, preposterously, a vision of Edward Bishop, and what he might be doing as he himself prepared to spend another night indoors near the fire, across from his grandfather: In it, the young man was at a club, the kind David had been to only once, and his long throat was exposed, and his mouth was open in song, and around him were other handsome young men and women, all dressed in bright silks, and life was festive, and the air smelled of lilies and champagne as, above them, a cut-glass chandelier tossed wobbling spangles of light around the room.
The six days until his next class passed even more slowly than usual, and the following Wednesday he arrived so early in anticipation that he determined to take a walk in order to calm himself and use up some time.
The institute was in a large, square building, simple but well-maintained, on the corner of West Twelfth and Greenwich Streets—a location that had become less salubrious over the decades with the arrival, three blocks north and one block west, of the city’s brothel quarters. Every few years, the school’s trustees would debate whether or not they might relocate, but they always chose in the end to remain, for it was the nature of the city that apparent opposites—the rich and the poor, the well-established and the newly arrived, the innocent and the criminal—should have to live in close proximity, as there was simply not enough territory available to make natural divisions otherwise possible. He walked south to Perry Street and then west and north on Washington Street, but after he completed the circuit twice, it was too cold even for him, and he was forced to stop, breathing on his hands and returning to the hansom to retrieve the package he’d brought.
For months now, he had been promising the children that he would let them draw something unusual, but he had been aware, as he handed the object over to Jane earlier that day to wrap in paper and twine, that he was also hoping that Edward Bishop might see him carrying such an unwieldy, odd thing in his arms and might be intrigued, might even stay to watch him unveil it, might be filled with awe. He was not proud of this, of course, or of the excitement
he felt as he walked down the hall to his classroom: He was aware of his breath quickening, of his heart in his chest.
But when he opened the door to his classroom, there was nothing—no music, no young man, no enchantment—only his students, playing and scuffling and shouting at one another, then noticing him and shoving one another into silence.
“Good afternoon, children,” he said, recovering himself. “Where is your music teacher?”
“He’s coming on Thursdays now, sir,” he heard one of the boys say.
“Ah,” he said, and was aware of both his disappointment, an iron chain around his neck, and of his shame for it.
“What’s in the package, sir?” asked another student, and he realized he was still leaning against the door, his numb hands gripping the object nestled in his arms. Suddenly it seemed foolish, a farce, but it was the only thing he had brought for them to sketch, and there was nothing else in the room with which to compose a tableau, and so he took it to the desk at the front of the class and unwrapped it, carefully, to reveal the statue, a plaster copy of a Roman marble torso. His grandfather possessed the original, bought when he was on
Grand Tour, and had had it copied when David was first learning to draw. It was of no real monetary value, but he had revisited it many times over the twenty-odd years he had owned it, and well before he saw another man’s chest, the sculpture had taught him all he knew about anatomy, about the way muscle lay over bone, and skin over muscle, the single, womanly crease that appeared in the side of the abdomen when you bent in one direction, the two downward strokes, like arrows, that pointed toward the groin.
At least the children were interested, impressed even, and as he positioned it on the stool, he told them about Roman statuary, and how the greatest expression of an artist’s skill was in the rendering of the human form. As he watched them draw, looking down at their paper and then up at the statue in brief, darting glances, he thought of how John considered his teaching foolish: “Why would you educate them in something that will be no part of their adult lives?” he had wondered. John was not the only one to think this—
even Grandfather, for all his indulgence of him, thought this pastime peculiar, if not cruel, exposing children to hobbies and interests that they would likely never have time, much less money, to pursue. But David maintained otherwise: He was teaching them something that you needed only a scrap of paper and a bit of ink or a stub of lead to enjoy; and besides, he told Grandfather, if you had servants who understood art better, who knew its value and worth, perhaps they would be more careful, more appreciative, of the artwork in the houses that they cleaned and tended, to which his grandfather—who had seen several of his objects inadvertently destroyed over the years by clumsy maids and footmen—had had to laugh, and admit that he could be correct.
That night, after sitting with Grandfather, he returned to his room and thought of how earlier, as he sat at the back of the classroom and drew along with his students, he had imagined Edward Bishop, not the plaster bust, perched on the stool, and he had dropped his pencil and then had made himself walk among the children, examining their attempts, in order to distract himself.
The next day was Thursday, and he was trying to invent a reason to once again visit the school when he received word that Frances needed to see him to review a discrepancy in the ledgers relating to the Binghams’ foundation, which funded all of their various projects. He of course had no excuse for not being available, and he knew Frances knew this as well, and so he was made to go downtown, where the two of them examined the books until they realized that a one had been smudged into a seven, thus throwing the accounts into disarray. A one to a seven: such a simple mistake, and yet, had they not found it, Alma would have been brought in for questioning, and perhaps even terminated from the Binghams’ employ. By the time they had finished, it was still early enough for him to reach the school before Edward’s class concluded, but then his grandfather asked him to stay for tea, and, again, he had no reason to refuse—his leisure was so well-known that it had become its own kind of prison, a schedule in the absence of one.
“You seem very anxious about something,” observed his
grandfather, as he poured tea into David’s cup. “Is there somewhere you need to be?”
“No, nowhere,” he replied.
He left as soon as he politely could, pulling himself into the hansom and telling the driver to hurry, please, but it was already well past four when they reached West Twelfth Street, and it was unlikely that Edward would have loitered, especially in such cold. Nevertheless, he bade the driver to wait and walked purposefully toward his classroom, closing his eyes and drawing his breath before turning the doorknob, and exhaling when he heard nothing but silence within.
And then: “Mister Bingham,” he heard a voice say, “what a surprise to see you here!”
He had of course been hoping for this moment, and yet, upon opening his eyes and seeing Edward Bishop before him, wearing his same bright smile, holding his gloves in one hand, his head tipped to one side as if he’d just asked David a question, he found himself unable to answer, and his expression must have given away something of his confusion, because Edward moved toward him, his face changing into a look of concern. “Mister Bingham, are you quite all right?” he asked. “You look very pale. Here, come sit in one of these chairs and let me get you some water.”
“No, no,” he managed at last. “I’m perfectly fine. I’m just—I had thought I left my sketchbook here yesterday—I was looking for it today and was unable to find it—but I can see I haven’t left it here, either—I’m sorry to interrupt you.”
“But you are not interrupting me at all! To lose your sketchbook—how awful: I don’t know what I would do with myself if I lost my own notebook. Let me look around a bit.”
“There is no need to,” he began, faintly—it was a shoddy lie: The room had so little furniture that there were few places his imaginary sketchbook could even be—but Edward had already begun looking, opening the empty drawers of the desk at the front of the room, peering into the empty cupboard that stood behind the desk, next to the chalkboard, even lowering to his knees, despite David’s protestations, to look beneath the piano (as if David would not have seen it
immediately had the sketchbook—safe at home in his study—been somehow here). All the while, Edward was making exclamations of alarm and dismay on David’s behalf. He had a theatrical, deliberately old-fashioned, deeply affected manner of speech—all
s—but it irritated less than it ought: It was both unnatural and genuine, and felt less a pretension than a reflection of an artistic sensibility, a suggestion of liveliness and good humor, as if Edward Bishop were determined to not be too serious, as if
the kind with which most people greeted the world, was the affectation, and not enthusiasm.
“It seems not to be here, Mister Bingham,” Edward declared at last, standing and looking at David directly with an expression, an almost-smile, that David wasn’t able to interpret: Was it one of flirtation, or even seduction, an acknowledgment of both their roles in this particular pantomime? Or was it (more likely) teasing in its nature, even mocking? How many men with foolish plans and affections had Edward Bishop endured in his short life? How long was the list to which David must now add his own name?
He would have liked to end this piece of theater but was uncertain how to do so: He had authored it, but he realized too late that he’d not conceived of a conclusion before he began. “You were very kind to search,” he said, miserably, looking toward the floor. “But I’m sure I simply misplaced it at home. I oughtn’t’ve come—I won’t trouble you any longer.”
he promised himself.
I will never trouble you again.
And yet he made no move to leave.
There was a silence, and when Edward spoke next, his voice was different, less fulsome, less everything. “It was no trouble, not at all,” he said, and, after another pause, “It’s very cold in this room, isn’t it?” (It was. Matron kept the facility chilly during school hours, which she claimed sharpened her charges’ sense of concentration and taught them resolve. The children had grown accustomed to it, but adults never could: Every teacher or staff member was always seen swaddled in layers of coats and shawls. David had visited the institute once in the evening and had been surprised to find it warm, even cozy.)
“It always is,” he replied, still unhappily.
“I thought I might warm myself with a cup of coffee,” Edward said, and when David made no response, uncertain once again how to interpret this statement, “There is a café around the corner if you’d care to join me?”
He agreed before he even knew he was doing so, before he could demur, before he was able to examine what this offer might really mean, and then, to his surprise, Edward was fastening his coat and they were leaving the school and walking east and then south on Hudson Street. They did not speak, though Edward hummed something as they went, another popular song, and for a moment, David doubted himself: Was Edward all surface and gloss? He had been assuming there was a serious person beneath his smiles and gestures, his white, neat teeth, but what if there was not? What if he was a mere flibbertigibbet, a man who sought only pleasure?
But then he thought: And so what if he is? It was coffee, not an offer of marriage, and, assuring himself of this, he thought then of Charles Griffith, and how he had not heard from him since their last meeting, before Christmas, and felt his neck grow hot, even in the cold.
The café, when they reached it, was less a café than a kind of teahouse, a cramped, rough-floored place with rickety wooden tables and backless stools. The front part was a shop, and they had to inch past a crowd of patrons examining barrels containing, variously, coffee beans and dried chamomile flowers and mint leaves, which the establishment’s two Chinamen employees would scoop into paper sacks and weigh on a brass scale, totting up the numbers on a wooden-bead abacus, whose constant, rhythmic clacking provided the place with its own percussive music. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the mood was lively and convivial, and the two men found a place to sit near the fireplace, which sent a stream of snapping embers spiraling through the air like fireworks.
“Two coffees,” Edward told the waitress, a plump Oriental girl, who nodded and trotted off.
For a moment, they sat staring at each other across the small table, and then Edward smiled, and David smiled back at him, and they smiled at each other smiling at each other, and then both began, at
once, to laugh. And then Edward leaned close to him, as if to deliver an intimacy, but before he could speak, a large group of young men and women—university students, by the look and sound of them—came in, settling down at a table near theirs, not even pausing in their debate, one that had been fashionable for college-age young men and women to have for decades, since even before the War of Rebellion: “I am only saying that our country can hardly consider itself free if we cannot welcome Negroes as whole citizens,” a pretty, sharp-featured girl was saying.
welcome here,” countered a boy across from her.
“Yes, but only to pass through on their way to Canada or to the West—we do not wish them to stay, and when we say we open our borders to anyone from the Colonies, we do not mean them, and yet they are even more persecuted than the ones to whom we offer shelter! We think ourselves so much better than America and the Colonies, and yet we are not!”
“But Negroes are not people like us.”
“But they are! I have known—well, not I, but my uncle, when he was traveling through the Colonies—Negroes who are
There was jeering from some of the group at this, and then one boy said, in a lazy, arrogant drawl, “Anna would have us believe that there were even
like us, and we ought never to have eradicated them but left them to their savagery.”
Indians like us, Ethan!
has been documented!”
This was greeted with the entire table shouting their response, and between the ruckus they made, and the click-click of the abacus, now louder than before, and the heat of the fire on his back, David began to feel woozy. It must have shown on his face, for Edward leaned again across the table and asked him, in a near-shout, if he might want to go elsewhere, and David said he would.